Black is King: or, the burden of Black art

One film cannot tell an entire continent’s story, and we shouldn’t want it to.

Imagine this; its a Sunday evening in Cape Town. The sky outside my bedroom is the blue of opal, the sun is warm and casts a golden glow over everything. I’m at my desk, I have five PDFs open, all of which I should be reading, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m doing the same thing as every reasonable person in this country…no, this world; I’m talking about Beyonce.

Saturday, the 1st of August marks possibly the most important day of 2020. Not because it marked a new month, nor another day in the ongoing political arrests and disappearances in Zimbabwe, nor yet another day in the saga that is life in lockdown, but because it marked the arrival of Beyonce Knowles’ Black is King. The film is a companion to her album The gift, itself a companion Album to the 2019 remake of the Lion King. The album featured various African artists, among them South Africa’s very own Moonchild Sanelly and Busiswa, and received favourable, though not rave reviews. It fared much better with the public, particularly the African public, much of which were pleased about how the album brought several of Africa’s finest to the world stage. Those who critiqued it usually cited the lack of East and Northern African artists, but the concept was well-received. Black is King, on the other hand, did not receive the favourable, moderate treatment the album did, instead receiving the Mar-mite treatment. Most people who watched BiK either loved it or hated it. I, for one, don’t really care about it. I’m very pleased for all the local creatives and musicians who made the film, but it doesn’t figure very much into my world. What I do find interesting about BiK is the amount of criticism it invited and the content of that criticism. I have no intention of defending Beyonce or anyone else in this piece, but I do want to look at the reasons behind the many excoriating think pieces written this weekend. I suspect they can tell us about our attitudes to art made by Black artists.

In my scrolling through twitter, I discovered a list of features shared by the criticisms of BiK. I list and respond to them below;

1.BiK is a result and servant of Black capitalism

Its absolutely true, BiK is the direct result of capitalism and serves to increase the wealth of capitalists. Then again, very few things are innocent of this charge. In the modern world, under the reign of American Imperialism and global capitalism, anything which can be produced or extracted or done, be it minerals or child care, operates as a commodity. The critique itself is sound, but I wonder if it is as fatal a flaw as the many great thinkers of the intellectual platform that is twitter make it out to be. Can we really condemn BiK for its existence in a world in which even resistance can be commodified? The obvious answer to the problem of art as commodity is to create work which radically separates itself from the idea of productivity, the idea of value. For example, the artist Erin Sweeney created an installation in which a set of Postcards, each with the address of someone in charge of a corporation which plays a large role in the emissions which cause climate change, were put up in a carousel. Those viewing the work were invited to take postcards and keep them, thus creating a work which was impossible to really sell, a work so ethereal that we did not have time to assign it monetary value. But, as I always ask, what can we do for Black people now? Can the gratification that art divested from Capital creates pay the bills? Most artists try to walk the fine line between meaningful and profitable work. Can we begrudge artists the opportunity to make a living from their work? Could Black is king have been anything but a commodity, created under and servile to capital? There may be answers to these questions which yield unfavourable results for BiK, but in the interim, it cannot be said that this criticism isn’t applicable to nearly everything which exists today. It is therefore of very little value.

2. BiK uses an African aesthetic (whatever that means) which is stereotypical

This one goes out to NoName, the American rapper who so Blithely referred to the work of creatives such as Trevor Stuurman, Yemi Alade and Shatta Wale as ‘an african aesthetic drapped in capitalism’. This particular critique irked me because in the attempt to call out a reductionist stereotyping, it engaged in its own reductionism. By failing to note the amount of detail, the level of research and artistic labour that went into the work, this criticism assumed a certain vision of Africanness, and denied the artists involved their vision. it broadly critiques the use of ‘African aesthetic’ and never recognises the possibility that there are actually many different aesthetics, coming from across the continent, brought by creatives who come from different cultures. By labelling the toil, the labour of individual, unique artists as ‘an African aesthetic’ merely plays into the idea of the African monolith. Sometimes, in condemning the ‘stereotype’ you reject facts. Further, this criticism imposed a duty on the artists, one which the artists have not accepted and one which, it seems, only Black artists bear. I accept that gross, racist stereotypes which cater to white audiences a la minstrelsy should never be tolerated, but I cannot help but see the ‘stereotyping’ argument as a failure to look into the actual cultural significance of certain images used in BiK. I didn’t have to go very far to discover a whole wealth of explanations of symbolism in the movie (twitter is your best friend, as is google). While it may make use of an existing conception of what Africa looks like (masks, big headdresses, Kingz) I hardly think that the use of images which have been used historically (because they actually reflect a piece of the real) is worth so much furor.

3. BiK fails to show the ‘real’ lives of African people

This response is closely related to the second one, and is the real reason I wrote this whole essay. The past 10 years have been a veritable golden age for cosmopolitan African writers, writers who present middle class characters living their middle class lives in a version of ‘Africa’ (because Africa is a monolith, Africa is a single reality) familiar to the emerging African reading classes. Writers such as Taiye Selasie and Chimamanda Adichie have been hailed as voices presenting a new, true vision of Africa, and they have been derided as presenting a false, half-story. It is strange to me that these writers should have this kind of criticism leveled against them, when Sally Rooney is not required to present an exact, blow by blow representation of what happens in Dublin, nor is Richard Ford expected to be an ethnographer of the American South. The criticism betrays three issues: first the dearth of readily available, publicised African art, second, the mistake we make about the work of artists, and third, the failure of consumers. The first issue is a very real one. Africa lacks a robust art market, with publishers and academics ready to disseminate, comment upon and study African art. Even this is a simplistic statement, there exists a growing intelligentsia across the continent, and countries are developing at differing rates. The fact remains, however, that when Africa is in the entertainment news, its a big deal for us. This is evidenced by the phenomenon that was Black Panther. It was truly spectacular to see that we, as Black people all over the world, were so desperate for representation that we tolerated truly laughable Xhosa and a war cry that Sounded like an order for Bombay Sapphire, conversly, others of us were incensed by the fantasy, the unrealness of it. The amount of attention that the movies (BiK and Black Panther) got shows that representation happens so infrequently for us that we are tempted to stuff it full of ourselves, as if we will never be seen ever again. We place the weight of our hopes and dreams and desire to be seen and heard on a handful of works and expect not to be disappointed. We encumber artists with the burden of our expectations. This speaks to the second issue, our mistake about the work of art.

The failure to see that at times,

an African escapism is not only valid,

but also necessary

is fatal

It is a debate as old as art itself. Many, many clever bald men with large estates have asked what art is, what art has to do, and they have received many answers. In Guernica Picasso showed art to be a witness to suffering, a call to memory. In Three studies of figures at the base of a crucifixion Francis Bacon showed art to be the expression of the horrendous abstraction, an experience that had nothing to do with message and everything to do with feeling. There are so many more examples of the freedom that European and American artists have, but when it comes to African artists, the ugly question slithers into the room, and its venom paralyses the possibility of creation. ‘Why don’t you show what Africa is really like?’ bays the swirling mass, unaware that no artist can contain the sum of all experience, can express everything in one work. It is the Burden placed on all marginal people, to act as ethnographers and not creators. Queer artists are always deemed to be producing art about queerness, women artists make women’s art, but white, straight men are simply: artists, individuals. While I accept that all art is political in virtue of who creates it, I cannot accept that that political nature creates a duty for the artist. I cannot accept that every piece of Black art must hold every part of the Black experience. It is an unfair imposition. The failure to see that at times, an African escapism is not only valid, but also necessary is fatal. Black lives are not just shacks, nor do war and corrugated iron have to sound in the distance every time Black people have even a little fun. The impact of the requirement that all Black art be ethnography is exacerbated by issue three: the failure of consumers.

If you want Beyonce’s film to act as a documentary or a history lesson, then you spit on Kerry James Marshall, Joy DeGuy and every other Black artist or academic doing the thing you supposedly want done. I’m aware of the limitations on access to art and academic literature which exist, but I cannot help but think that certain consumers, those who have access, are unwilling to do the work of learning Black history and art unless Hollywood spoonfeeds it to them. Of course, it must be said that there is a lack of representation of African people and stories, but to treat the handful of well-publicized representations as vitally important forgets the other work which exists, made by Africans. If there is an issue with Beyonce’s BiK’s failure to address African issues, why not suggest that the people around you watch Rungano Nyoni’s I am not a witch, if you think The Gift indulges in caricatures of African sounds, why not promote the work of Rokia Traore? If African work which exists was better researched by those who so desperately want to consume it, then bad work (if BiK is that) would sting less.

Black people are neither scum nor magic, but just human beings trying to get along.

4. BiK romanticises Pre-colonial Africa

This criticism was more agreeable to me. I do think there is a tendency to, when discussing Black identity, romanticise pre-colonial African cultures, paint them as a monolith, a clutch of monarchies in which the kings were both just and magestic, the people were brave warriors, scientists, magicians, giants, all the wonderful, impossible things. This is problematic because it disguises the very real, dirty reality of Blackness, that Black people are neither scum nor magic, but just human beings trying to get along. The only reason I would disagree with this criticism, however, lies in what BiK is. BiK makes no attempt at being ethnography, it is a visual, auditory experience which seeks to weave a myth of Black magic. Myths are only dangerous when we rely on them for anything more than feeling, when we think of them as factual, then we are in danger. BiK is not particularly poised to become the next Hotep Sunday night movie. It is, at the end of the day, just another piece of work in a world full of work, both good and bad, which cannot be considered outside of context and is only dangerous when consumers fail to be critical of it.

The second part of this point, which was so obviously ridiculous that I didn’t even want to mention it, was the romaticisation of a monarchical precolonial past. I may be wrong, but BiK is created as the companion to the companion to the remake of the film Lion KING. I may be wrong again when I say Kings are monarchs. If these two premises are true, then it may hold that BiK being heavy on the King thing is not only acceptable, its the heart of the whole concept.

5. BiK caters to the white gaze.

It seems like Black people really can’t get anything nice. Every time a Black artist makes their mark in the world, capitalises on their success, the accusation of catering to whiteness arises. I ask you, what about BiK uniquely communicates to white people? Is it the fact that it includes a vision of Blackness foreign to Black people? Then how come it resonated with so many Black people? Are those Black people guilty of secretly wanting to be seen in a positive light by white people? What if I told you that whiteness did not figure in the minds of most of the people (that I know) who watched it? That the experience was about self, about a fantasy of black joy. Is it so wrong to indulge in dreaming, must a white man always lurk in the background of Black dreams? I argue that Americanah caters to the white gaze more than BiK, and Americanah was the darling of anti-racist discourse when I last checked, so it seems that only certain displays of Blackness are considered to cater to whiteness. Sometimes, its okay to indulge in a non-realist, stylised fantasy of Black joy. Not all Black joy and excellence is about other people.

Conclusion

I do not think BiK is as important as we make it out to be. In fact, I do not think any work should carry the burden of lifting Africa out of poverty, or whatever the critics of BiK want. What I do think is that the far-reaching influence of BiK and works like it betrays a desperation for representation and a mistake about what art is, what artists have to do. Speaking as a Black queer person, I would like my work to be judged on its merits, how it makes people feel, how well it fulfills its stated goal. To then be submitted to someone else’s expectations, someone else’s version of Blackness and Queerness is to be denied agency and the freedom to create. What is happening is not some radical blackness at work, but the backlash of a people so used to being undernourished that it insists that every meal be perfect, that every work meet every need. Make no mistake, bad representation should be called out, problematic work should be shunned and derided, but no work should be shunned because it fails to do the impossible. Beyonce and other creatives think Black is King, I think black is art, is life, is death, is pleasure and pain. Blackness is everything and no work, no matter how grand or well-financed can fit all of us, nor should it. My hope is that BiK will create an apetite for more representations of Blackness, heaven knows we’ll rip each other apart if we don’t get them.

In which I ramble